The NY Times/Bill Keller Irreligious Litmus Test


Since I am rarely prepared to give a journalist the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his or her objectivity or fairness, I have prepared three possible answers to Mr. Keller’s questions. Also, I am assuming these questions are directed at Christians only, for reasons too obvious to explain:

1. Is it fair to question presidential candidates about details of their faith?

a. Yes, assuming it is a fair-minded attempt to accumulate either biographical information—better insight into what has informed a candidate’s worldview—or to determine whether answers to questions that faith provides are also answers to questions most people assume science or history or common sense provides.

b. No, because that is private, and you’re only trying to ridicule me and thereby discourage other Christians from running for public office, which is their right.

c. Don’t worry, Bill: I’m an atheist just like Than Shwe.

2. Is it fair to question candidates about controversial remarks made by their pastors, mentors, close associates or thinkers whose books they recommend?

a. Yes, assuming it is, again, to get a better idea of what has influenced candidates’ thinking and whether they can think for themselves. If the questioner believes every Christian takes as Holy Writ every word that drops from a minister’s or priest’s lips, or for that matter, that drops out of text written by Martin Luther, John Calvin—or, God help us, John Hagee—then he is an idiot and should probably not be asking these questions of anyone.

b. No, because what goes on within the walls of a church is fit only for members/believers, and can only be misconstrued by outsiders.

c. Don’t worry, Bill: I’m an atheist just Benito Mussolini.

3. (a) Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or “Judeo-Christian nation?” (b) What does that mean in  practice?

a. No, if by that you mean there is a national creed to which all good citizens—and candidates for elected offer—must adhere. Christianity is a faith for persons, not governments. But with that said, it must simultaneously be acknowledged that many of the founders—Patrick Henry, George Mason, Benjamin Rush, John Witherspoon—and the overwhelming majority of American citizens have been and continue to be Christians of one denomination or another, which means that the broad lineaments of the Christian faith remain important guidelines for the U.S. citizenry in how they live their lives.

b. Yes, because it is the only way to protect freedom of religion from people like you.

c. Don’t worry, Bill: I’m an atheist just like Timothy McVeigh when he blew up the Murrah Federal Building.

4. If you encounter a conflict between your faith and the Constitution and laws of the United States, how would you resolve it? Has that happened, in your experience?

a. By either adhering to the Constitution and laws of the United States or changing them so that you will stop killing the little babies. Yes, which is why I both believe in the separation of church and state, and vote.

b. By adhering to my conscience. Remember the Germans of the 1930s, who put law before conscience. Yes, but I never talk about it. Cognitive dissonance kills.

c. Don’t worry, Bill: I’m an atheist just like both Jacques Hebert and Napoleon Bonaparte.

5. (a) Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? (b) What about an atheist?

a. As to a Muslim, no, if he or she did not advocate Shariah law. As to the atheist, I probably already have. I don’t have religious litmus tests like some people.

b. Never. The Muslims will attempt to raise a mighty army to take control of the nation’s Capitol and kill everyone who does not convert to Islam. I’ve never met a real atheist.

c. Don’t worry, Bill: I’m an atheist just like Jeffrey Dahmer when he ate all those people.

6. Are Mormons Christians, in your view? Should the fact that Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons influence how we think of them as candidates?

1. No. Christianity as a faith distinct from Judaism has a discernible history, including a theological history. That history begins in the middle of the first century (although, it is rooted in the Hebrew Bible, which is much older). That history clearly states that Christians believe in one God in three persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Light from light, very God from very God. Mormons reject this. Mormonism is one of several new religions born in the 19th century. It is a quasi-Christian sect, like Christian Science and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They may be fine people and fine citizens. They should be free to practice their religion without interference, so long as they are subject to the same laws as everyone else. Just because someone says he’s a journalist does not make him one. Uh, I meant Christian. Just because someone says he’s a Christian… As for Romney and Huntsman, only if they believe that their faith or their church should somehow be granted special status or its doctrines enshrined in civil law.

b. No. But then neither are Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, so that doesn’t make me an anti-Mormon bigot.

c. Don’t worry, Bill: I’m an atheist, just like Pol Pot.

7. What do you think of the evangelical Christian movement known as Dominionism and the idea that Christians, and only Christians, should hold dominion over the secular institutions of the earth?

a. It’s poop.

b. We already do. You’d know that if you were a Christian.

c. Don’t worry, Bill: I’m an atheist, just like Josef Stalin.

8. (a) What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution? (b) Do you believe it should be taught in public schools?

a. My attitude is that those facts that are generally agreed upon should be taught in the context of the sciences but that teachers have no business importing their religious beliefs into the classroom, for example, telling students that we now know there is no God based on the fossil record, or that anyone who espouses a faith in the Divine is a threat to the republic. It should be taught in public schools but not until students have been taught to read and count. And good luck with that.

b. My attitude is that it remains controversial enough as to its factual basis that it should be either ignored in favor of other useful subjects or countered with some form of intelligent design theory. The chance that students will leave school believing they are the products of mere cosmological/biochemical accidents, and therefore without purpose and meaning–and without an ultimate judge–can lead only to chaos and despair, which is a form of abuse.

c. Don’t worry, Bill: I’m an atheist who thinks society should be built on sound scientific principles, like eugenics and lysenkoism.

9. Do you believe it is proper for teachers to lead students in prayer in public schools?

a. No. It can only be one of those “To whom it may concern” prayers, which is worse than no prayer at all. Even if sectarian, it can only be implicitly coercive in regard to non-adherents. Parents who want their children to pray in school should either put them in parochial schools or make sure they are supplied with plenty of pop quizzes. They’ll be plenty of praying.

b. Yes. It acknowledges that even Teacher has a master.

c. Don’t worry, Bill: I’m an atheist just like Madalyn Murray-O’Hair.

Now for the Sacramone Questionnaire for Nontheists:

1. Do you think that anyone who believes in the supernatural is delusional? If so, do you believe they should be treated medically? Do you believe they should be allowed to adopt children?

2. Do you think anyone who believes in six-day special creation should ipso facto be barred from holding public office?

3. Do you believe the religious beliefs of historical figures should be eradicated when discussing them in schools? For example, that Louis Pasteur was a devout Catholic who prayed the Rosary daily?

4. Do you believe that the religious faith of those responsible for the birth of modern science—Galileo, Copernicus, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, George LeMaitre (father of the theory of the big bang), Jesuit priests too numerous to mention, et al.—should be eradicated when discussing them in schools?

5. Do you believe that it should be noted that the rise of modern science occurred in the context of a civilization that was still explicitly Christian when teaching either European history of the history of science?

6. Do you think homeschooling should be illegal, as it is in some European countries?

7. Do you believe vaccines are a factor in the rise of autism cases? Do you believe parents should be allowed to opt out of vaccine programs?

8. Do you believe that climate-change skepticism is the equivalent of Holocaust denialism or racism?

9. Do you believe churches and all religious institutions should be taxed?

10. Do you believe that there is such a thing as life unworthy of life? Explain.

11. Do you believe assisted suicide and euthanasia should be made legal either on a state-by-state basis or by federal fiat?

12. Do you believe infanticide should be made legal? If not, when is a baby a human being protected by the rights any other human being enjoys?

13. Is there any point when an adult human being loses the right to life? If so, under what circumstances?

14. Do you believe polygamous marriage should be legalized, either on a state-by-state basis or by federal fiat? Do you believe that “minor-attracted adults” should be protected by law as a perfectly valid expression of human sexuality that was much more common in ancient Europe and among non-Western cultures? Do you believe incest and/or bestiality should be protected by law as perfectly valid expressions of human sexuality?

15. Do you believe that individuals are ultimately responsible for their behavior, or do you believe they are subject to too many internal (biochemical, psychological) and external (social pressures, strange belief systems) factors to be held accountable, such that many of our criminal laws should be seriously reformed or eradicated?

ADDENDUM: Based on some of the comments I have received, including some submitted privately, allow me to reiterate the point I made in the very first question: It is perfectly legitimate to ask candidates about their religion if done in good faith, pun somewhat intended—especially if a candidate has emphasized the role faith plays in his or her life. I would go even further and say that if a candidate has said publicly that he believes God told him to run for office, it is incumbent upon journalists—hell, even supporters—to ask, “Really? And how exactly did God tell you? Did you hear a voice? Does this mean you will inevitably win? Does God speak to you about other issues in this way?” Pat Robertson, when he ran for president in 1988, stated explicitly on The 700 Club (I was watching when he said it to Ben Kinchlow) that he believed God was telling him to run. Now maybe God wanted to humble Robertson by setting him up for failure. Or the man is/was privy to a kind of special revelation the overwhelming majority of Christians believe ENDED with the death of the last apostle. But it was certainly something journalists, opponents, AND supporters should certainly have asked hard questions about.

I didn’t ask my mechanic whether he was a Christian. I didn’t ask my dentist. I didn’t ask the guy who installed my Verizon FIOS setup. (Time Warner Cable is a satanic cabal, I know that.) There is a practical knowledge, as well as a kind of wisdom, that is to be gleaned from humdrum earthly study of secular materials, and subjects on which the Bible and systematics are silent. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

…Modern Industry is a subject of which I know nothing at all. But for that very reason it may illustrate what Christianity, in my opinion, does and does not do. Christianity does not replace the technical. When it tells you to feed the hungry it doesn’t give you lessons in cookery. If you want to learn that, you must go to a cook rather than a Christian. If you are not a professional Economist and have no experience of Industry, simply being a Christian won’t give you the answer to industrial problems. My own idea is that modern industry is a radically hopeless system. You can improve wages, hours, conditions, etc., but all that doesn’t cure the deepest trouble: i.e., that numbers of people are kept all their lives doing dull repetition work which gives no full play to their faculties. How that is to be overcome, I do not know. If a single country abandoned the system it would merely fall a prey to the other countries which hadn’t abandoned it. I don’t know the solution: that is not the kind of thing Christianity teaches a person like me. Let’s now carry on with the questions.

“Answers to Questions on Christianity,” God in the Dock (Eerdmans: 1970) 48.

BUT, when Bill Keller begins this discussion by at least implicitly comparing religious faith to a belief in the existence in space aliens, you know good and well that there’s another agenda at work here, and it’s not one rooted in good faith.